There are many techniques that are used in tandem with and can further the benefits of acupuncture, of which cupping might be the most famous. Did you catch the news about Michael Phelps and other 2016 US Olympic athletes using it to alleviate sore, tight muscles? Or see a picture of Jennifer Aniston sporting round spots on her shoulders while posing on the red carpet? A quick google image search turns up a slew of celebs proudly bearing the marks of their cupping treatments. But this therapy is hardly new, and far from being a fad. It is thousands of years old, and began with the use of animal horns, followed by bamboo, and now is practiced with silicone, glass, or plastic “cups." It isn’t specific to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): it is found elsewhere around the world, like Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even South America. The cups are applied to the body with suction, which helps them hold onto and gently pull on the skin and muscle underneath, allowing new blood to enter that region while pushing out old (stagnant) blood, simultaneously signaling the body to activate its other healing mechanisms. According to TCM, stagnation is the cause of pain, and cupping helps remove stagnation: it helps the tissue develop new blood flow and causes anti-inflammatory chemicals to be released, and is effective at stretching tight fascia and muscles.
Does it hurt? Some say no pain no gain, but cupping can be effective without causing discomfort. It should be no more uncomfortable than a massage with your desired level of pressure, and some say is actually more effective for relieving muscle tension.
Why would your practitioner want to cup you? In short, to help you feel better. Cupping is used for many conditions: muscle aches, sprains, tightness, and overuse, colds, asthma, and chest congestion, poor digestion, and even as a facial rejuvenation tool to promote circulation and the production of collagen!
There are different types of cupping. Stationary is one of the most common. The cups are put into place for 5-10 minutes, creating a vacuum that activates the movement of new and old blood in the area. (This can cause the round marks you’ve probably heard about or seen in pictures: they are rarely painful, and generally gone within 1-2 weeks.) Slide cupping is also fairly common, and occurs when the cups are applied with a lesser amount of tension and used with lotion or oil to glide across the skin and create a massaging effect. Lastly, there is wet cupping, which is used less often (for obvious reasons): it requires pricking the skin, after which the cups are applied and left for several minutes, causing blood to be drawn into them. It can be effective at reducing stagnation, but as you can imagine, not everyone is going to be open to such a procedure.
The bottom line is if your practitioner thinks it will support and even accelerate your healing, she’ll take the time to discuss it with you: the benefits, the very few drawbacks, whether it’s contraindicated with any medications you may be on, and will offer you further information and articles (like this one and this one) if you’re still on the fence. But when you do decide to try cupping, you’ll very likely feel relaxed during and after the treatment, not to mention you’ll leave feeling less restriction and pain!